August 3, 2013

Gerard House celebrating 25 years of helping pregnant teens

More than 600 pregnant teens have called Gerard House home over the last 25 years.

More than 600 pregnant teens have called Gerard House home over the last 25 years.

For one resident, who cannot be named because she is under 18 and in foster care, the house has given her many things.

“There’s a lot of positive attitude here,” she said.

She was 16 when she came to Gerard House and went on to earn her high school diploma after being put into the state’s custody for a truancy issue. The pregnancy is what got her attention.

“They said if you don’t get straightened out, there’s a chance you could have your kid taken away, so I realized I want to go to school and get everything done,” she said. “I was in a foster home and it was hard for me at first. It really helped me coming here.”

Now, about to turn 18, she and her 8-month-old son are getting ready for another big change: She’s starting a career to become an aesthetician.

“They’ve brought her stability, learning skills, emotional and financial support, she has her high school diploma and she’s going to Eric Fisher Academy,” said Christy Hannon, the young woman’s family support worker from St. Francis Community Services who works with Gerard House and was a teen mom herself.

The large, but modest house at 3144 N. Hood will take in pregnant teens at any point of their pregnancy and allow them to stay until their babies can crawl. It will celebrate its 25th anniversary Sunday with a reception in downtown Wichita.

Gerard House began as a joint mission of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother and the Congregation of St. Joseph. Now it’s under the umbrella of Via Christi Health in Wichita. It’s named after Gerard Majella, the patron saint of mothers.

According to the most recent figures from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for 2011, the statewide pregnancy rate for ages 10 to 19 is 20.9 per 1,000, or nearly 4,100 pregnancies. A little more than 890 of those pregnancies were in Sedgwick County.

‘School and baby’

The young women have a very structured environment, said Deneen Dryden, Gerard House executive director. They often wake up for school at 6 a.m. and aren’t done with parenting classes, tutoring and counseling until 9 p.m.

In addition to connecting the women with prenatal care – most of which is paid for by Medicaid – and parenting classes and counseling, Gerard House also helps some find jobs through the Workforce Alliance.

The state has a program that helps pay for some of the young women to attend selected state schools for higher education, Dryden said, but typically only 2 percent of adolescents who are pregnant before they’re 18 finish college.

“To me, that’s the saddest statistic,” she said.

“For us the real priority is school and baby. If they haven’t completed their high school diploma or GED, that’s the No. 1 responsibility because the research shows only 40 percent graduate.”

Gerard House also provides the women information on adoption, Dryden said. As a Catholic-sponsored institution, it does not encourage abortion.

“They need to make an informed decision,” she said. “If they choose to parent we give them the skills and support them in that decision.”

The younger the woman, the less likely they are to place the babies into adoption services, Dryden said. At Gerard House, about one in 20 decide to pursue adoption.

“If you look at infrastructure many come from, they didn’t have family,” she said. “And they’ll look right at you and say, ‘I got pregnant so I would have something to love and to call family.’

“When you’re under that pretense, you think that baby is going to meet your needs instead of the reality that you’re up all night.”

Juvenile system

Often, the young women are referred through foster care or the juvenile justice system, Dryden said. But they also come through private or community referrals by school nurses or families.

“There’s lots of channels that get them here,” Dryden said.

“What we know is that on paper, it really doesn’t matter what it says, we’re dealing with a pregnant teenager who’s got lots going on in their life. So we treat them all the same. They’re the same girl.”

As of July 1, Gerard House is the only contracted maternity home with Juvenile Services in the state.

According to Jeremy Barclay, communications director for the Kansas Department of Corrections, the state used to also contract with Mary Elizabeth Maternity Home in Hays and Grace Center in Kansas City, but the number of teens in the system who are being referred to group homes has decreased over the last several years.

“It’s just an example of oversupply for demand,” Barclay said.

And it’s perhaps a shift in the way society views pregnant teens, Dryden said.

“Initially, it was set up because of the stigma that society placed on (pregnant teens) and the shame,” Dryden said. “A lot of the girls were sent away and would come back to the community after they had placed for adoption.

“And although times have changed and society has changed, that’s still the mission: to still serve this underserved population that’s very vulnerable.”

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